The 14-year-old Baker pulled a black, spiral-bound notebook out of his bookbag.
“I immediately knew he was different,” Hallman said. “I knew he was serious about getting to a different level.”
Two days later he returned to Hallman’s office with three things written down in his notebook.
- Change my family’s circumstances by being the first in my family to go to college.
- Go to an Ivy League institution.
- Play Division I football.
“The next thing Coach Hallman did was so important,” Baker said. “He invested in me. He gave me hope.”
Hallman told him it was time to plan, so the two researched what specific things Baker needed to do to achieve his goals and challenged him to grow.
Strive for perfect attendance. Sit in the front of class and get to know your teachers. Be on time. Always do the right thing, even when no one is looking.
Be a leader.
When he began focusing on football, college coaches took notice, especially in the Ivy League. The first in the door was Cornell’s Guido Falbo, the Big Red’s lead recruiter in the state of Minnesota.
“Here comes Coach Falbo, and he looks like a Division I coach,” Baker said. “I didn’t know much about Cornell coming into the process, but I was impressed with them right from the start.”
Baker’s hard work had paid off.
“I picked up his transcript in the guidance office and asked them to tell me about JT. His guidance counselor just jumped out of her seat when she saw I was from Cornell. ‘You have to understand this kid is so special to us, he's so special to this high school because of what he has done and who he is.’ I mean, the outpouring of emotion for him and his family was special,” Falbo said.
The guidance counselor brought him to the principal’s office. Same story. Then he stopped the school lunch lady. Same story.
“He exuded exactly what we're looking for as an individual, and not only did he check all the boxes, but it was clear he would make a difference here at Cornell.”
Falbo and the Big Red stayed connected, but Baker eagerly listened to the pitches from other schools. Armed with questions he came up with in advance about all aspects of the respective programs, colleges, and educational opportunities in and out of the classroom, Baker always came prepared. He dismissed one prominent Ivy school high on his list because the coach seemed disinterested in the visit.
“Bad fit,” he told Hallman moments after the school left the room.
To this day, Hallman still provides Baker’s questions to his high school students as a guide of what to ask when college recruiters call.
While he had Cornell’s eye, he hadn’t secured an offer yet. Football coaches contact hundreds of kids per year to yield classes of approximately 30 student-athletes. While highlight films and game tape are important, the best way to earn a spot is to attend a school’s summer camp and compete live against other prospects. Baker was extended an invitation to Cornell’s junior camp. Falbo told him that Coach Archer needed to see him in person before they could extend him a spot.
Baker excitedly brought the offer to his parents. They sat him down and had an frank conversation with him.
“JT, we can’t afford that,” he recounted. “There’s no way we can fly you to New York and put you up in a hotel room, take time away from the restaurant. You know we love you, but we just can’t.”
His parents were in a tight financial situation at the time and had fronted the money to send him on other college trips. The Cornell price tag just wasn’t going to be possible. He threw the pamphlets away.
For most high school students, that would have been it. But in the back of his mind, JT had his heart set on Cornell. He was not about to give up on his opportunity so easily. In one swoop, he could cross No. 2 and No. 3 off his black book list at the same time.
Baker scraped together money he had saved. He found a redeye into New York City for half the cost of a regular flight. The high school senior-to-be had never been to New York City before and was still four hours away from campus. He called Coach Falbo and asked whether Cornell could provide transportation. NCAA rules would not allow that. So, he caught a bus to Ithaca. Hotels in Ithaca were expensive, so he called Coach Falbo again. Can I stay with a player, or at a dorm? It was a no again. Baker called all around campus and found that there was a summer science program in one of the dorms. He found out he could rent one of the rooms for $25 per night. He could ride the program’s shuttle to campus where a special stop at Schoellkopf was added.
Baker did all the legwork himself. Now at the field early for the camp, Coaches Archer and Falbo spotted him and called him over.
“They asked where my parents and I were staying. I told them the story,” Baker said. “Later that day, Coach Archer told me regardless of how I played, he was extending an offer. He knew I wanted to join the Big Red family.”
Following his final high school season, Baker was chosen to compete in the Minnesota Football Showcase, a senior all-star game sponsored by the Minnesota Football Coaches Association. He was chosen captain of the North squad and was asked to give a speech at the banquet on the evening before the game. In the audience was Minnesota Vikings COO Kevin Warren. His son, Powers, was playing for the South team. It would have been impossible to guess that a brief encounter that night would soon create another branch in Baker’s “family” tree.
There's a freedom at altitude that can't be replicated on the ground. It is stored in panoramic views reserved exclusively for birds and pilots. There's quiet and stillness in the emptiness as you look up, an appreciation of the plane’s vast power that holds its place in the sky when you look down. To orient yourself, you don't look up, or down, or backwards.
“When you get up in the air, it’s the most phenomenal feeling ever. It’s just you and the sky. You have a lot of power in your hands, but it almost feels effortless,” Baker said.
Baker first sat in a cockpit seat when he was 7, eventually piloting Cessnas, Pipers and gliders. As part of a youth engagement program, he got to know Col. Charles McGee and Joseph Gormer, two of the last remaining Tuskegee Airmen. There was a time when his childhood career ambitions involved flying, but other ideas grabbed his mind's attention.
School. Sports. Friends. Dating. Not in that order, of course.
The freedom and power Baker recognized in flying has never left him, though. It's just changed his perspective.
Baker's life reads like the "Most Interesting Man in the World's" curriculum vitae. He was flying planes by age 7 and earned a black belt in karate by age 10. He attended a performing arts middle school and was an accomplished drummer as well as the lead in the Outsiders and the Wizard of Oz in theatre. He won two state high school basketball championships. He is the godson of an NFL Hall of Famer. He was tapped for induction into Quill & Dagger Senior Honor Society, a prominent and secret group reserved for the top one percent of undergraduates at Cornell who excel in leadership, character and service.
If you added something unexpected to that list, like being an expert bullfighter or having the ability to solve a Rubik’s cube in 20 seconds, you wouldn't bat an eye. You'd just wonder who he learned that skill from.
That. That's the secret sauce in JT Baker's accomplishments, and something he readily acknowledges. Baker takes coaching well. He collects mentors like others collect memorabilia. He’s a quarterback in a cornerback’s body with all the attributes of a good signal caller. He observes and leads, processes information, and sticks to the game plan. He is disciplined, studied and unflappable. But most importantly, he listens. He always has.
His parents noticed at a young age a special maturity that might have come from pouring everything into their only son. It’s something that everyone notices about him. Talk to 10 people about JT Baker and every one of them mentions a variation of “he’s mature beyond his years.”
On the night of the Minnesota Football Showcase banquet, Baker made it a point to introduce himself to Kevin Warren, the COO of his hometown Vikings. Warren, as he often does, gave JT his business card.
“He asked questions that seasoned executives don’t. A few days later he called me to follow up. I asked him what his career aspirations were. His answers were precise, mature beyond his years,” Warren remembers.
The following summer, Baker became an administrative intern to Warren with the Vikings. He would sit in on high-level meetings and conference calls with legislators, owners, and high-ranking sports executives. It put him in a no-pressure environment to observe, take notes and learn.
“I told him early on, not many young black men get an opportunity to sit in an environment that is very insular without the pressure to produce and to just learn. From the first day we started working with each other, I've exposed him to everything. He comes off as so professional and well-liked - no one was offended he was sitting in on the meetings.”
Warren looked back on his own experience and his many mentors, including former Big Red athletic director and SEC commissioner Mike Slive and longtime NFL head coach Dick Vermeil, and saw himself in Baker’s shoes. People had invested in him the same way he was now investing in Baker.
Baker wears a suit to every Board of Trustee function, required or not. It’s become a bit of a running joke with the trustees. Warren purchased some of those suits for his protege. They end every phone call by telling each other “I love you.”
“I look at JT as a second son to our family. He's special to me, my wife, my son and daughter,” Warren said. “There's a handful of people that come into your life because God brought you together. JT and I will be close as long as we're on this earth.”
Shortly after he arrived at Cornell, Baker connected with the School of Hotel Administration Dean, Kate Walsh, who put him in touch with Andrew Tisch. The two met for a quick breakfast when Tisch was in town and he left impressed.
Baker’s opportunity to work on the Board of Trustees with Tisch and a number of others has created new relationships that will last long after Baker has graduated.
“It is a pleasure working with JT in his role as Student Elected Trustee where he voices the concerns and ideas of Cornell’s student population among trustees and university leaders with integrity, grace and determination,” said Cornell Vice President for Student & Campus Life, Ryan Lombardi. “I have witnessed his compassion toward others, his drive, and his determination to keep moving forward through life’s many challenges with confidence and positivity.”